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February 2013

This month's prompt was inspired by a series of programs about trees that I listened to on the BBC. They were created in response to the ash dieback disease that has hit trees in the UK. Roger McGough hosts Poetry Please and presented some tree poems, old and new by DH Lawrence, Philip Larkin, Thomas Hardy, WB Yeats, Gerard Manley Hopkins and others.

"The Secret Power of Trees"  looks at Britain's woodlands that were planted for timber or hunting but are now also used to help the mentally ill and elderly people as part of what is known as "social forestry." The power comes with seeing woodlands as therapeutic and healing landscapes, and not just by new age types. He points out that in Japan, doctors take seriously the practice of "forest air bathing", and claim all kinds of health benefits from simply being in the woods. It's a different trend in the poetry of trees, since in much older poetry, forests were often seen as scary places, full of evil spirits and outlaws.

Thinking about trees, some poems come to mind immediately, like "Birches" by Robert Frost which ends with that glorious wish to be a swinger of birches.

But the two poems I decided to focus on this month for our writing prompt are poems that feature women interacting directly with a tree.

Look at Woman Looking Up Into A Plum Tree by Melanie McCabe and Woman Waving to Trees by Dorothea Tanning

This month's prompt is obviously to write a poem that focuses on someone interacting, perhaps by addressing, a tree. Your woman (or Man Swinging From Birches) will also need to be specific in their tree choice. It's sad how many people can't even identify the trees on their own property or ones they pass every day.  Of course, in Jane Kenyon's tale of "Taking Down the Tree," the specificity is that the tree is a Christmas tree, which is an alternate and legitimate take on the prompt too.

For more on this prompt and others, visit the Poets Online blog.


My friend told me to go hug an Olive Tree.
I wondered how this can be beneficial to me.
So, I hugged an Olive Tree today and
I truthfully understood the tree like it was my friend.
Hey Mister Olive Tree,
I'd like to think that you can see everything from up there,
That you know all the answers,
That you can tell me tales that only a young child can create.
I really wanted it to tell me the secrets of the world,
maybe that would be beneficial to me.
I peered into its branches, and I could see into its truth-telling soul.
They say dreams come true when hugging
this peaceful, magical tree.
The Olive Tree grows slowly, like a human.
Seed, sprout, sapling and then it matures.
Just like us: infants, children, adolescents and then becoming adults.
In the Spring time, delicate white and yellow flowers
sprout and smell of a delightful scent.
Those flowers change into fruits,
growing larger until Summer's end.
Its best fruit is in its riper years, like our youth.
Looking above at this marvelous tree,
I get lost in the intertwining of branches
and the silvery-green, everlasting leaves.
Even in dry, arid areas,
the gentle Olive Tree still grows richly.
It, like humans, can survive all matters of damage.
When it burns, it sprouts again.
When it is cut down, there is always hope
that a new shoot will sprout.
This beautiful, rejuvenating tree has lived a long, life.

So my friend, when you got dreams,
go search for a magical garden
with olive trees and embrace one.

Christina Naphor


And so it came to be, that
at one Sunday dinner in
September, my grandfather
would announce that the first
figs of the season were ripe
for the picking...
ready to be divided among
his children. He said it with
such reverence. We were
filled with anticipation and
knew it was a very special
day indeed.

I remembered that there
would be at least one fig for
each person. Make sure
you washa them good, my
gramma would say. You
gotta watch out for those
ants. They burn your tongue
like hot pepper. As I gently
patted them dry, I deposited
the allotted fruits in the small
china bowls lined in a row on
the gray formica table. Seven
bowls for seven siblings.

Come November, I observed
my grandfather prune the lesser
branches. I watched him
him painstakingly wrap the
barren tree in an old carpet and
then covered it in what looked
like canvas. He then bound it
with cord. That's probably the
only thing I miss about that
house, except for the memories.

Marie A. Mennuto-Rovello


You grab my senses
as I pass. Delicate bark
peeling, revealing
salmon pink beneath layers
of rain polished patina.

This quiet beauty
elicits blank amazement.
And I, choosing, lose
myself to your bare skyward
branches, surrendering all.

Maddison Ross


I remember looking back at the time my mom asked me to go pick apples from our apple tree,
We’ve had this tree in our backyard for a couple months and thanks to this tree,
We haven’t bought apples from the food store in a really long time.

I walked outside into the fresh autumn air and the cool wind hit me and chilled my skin,
“I miss summer” I thought to myself,
But this apple tree is the one thing I enjoy about autumn.

I reached the tree in the middle of our backyard and stood on my tippy toes to grab an apple,
This tree is at least triple my height,
It’s also clearly stronger and tougher than me.

I took a bite out of the apple and pleased with its flavor and sweetness I continued to pick more for my mom,
When I gathered about ten, I washed them in my kitchen and began to peel and cut them,
I had all ingredients out to make the apple pie I was preparing for my mom.

I imagined her walking into the house after a hard day of work,
Her perfect white teeth shining through her smile and her welcoming arms wrapped around me,
Thanking me for the delicious treat I left her.

It’s amazing how a simple apple tree can make a tasty dessert,
With its thick, long, bark branches,
That’s the beauty of nature, turning something that looks so tough into something sweet and edible.

Kristen Calderoni


I had not biked the path
Since the summer’s deep drought
Had ended in December rain.
The trees on the quiet street
Beside the ranked houses were
As I had left them in August—
No change as I rolled along.

But when I entered the narrow
Concrete path beside the gully
Between the pines and oaks
That always lay in shadow,
I was shocked by sunlight
Pouring through great gaps
In the canopy. Where loblolly pines
Had once risen to majestic height,
Pale sky like blank pages rent
The landscape, flooding the path
With light through jagged tears.

I had watched the tops of pines
Brown as the brutal summer heat
Sucked every drop of moisture
Out of the baking land, sapping
The last life out of trees whose
Taproots sunk deep into the earth.
I could almost hear them scream,
Their dying agonies palpable in the
Relentless heat that held on through
November: two-hundred million dead.

But now the men with saws had come,
Like death’s angels, sweeping the trees
Away, cutting huge gaps in the cover
Along both sides of the twisting path.
The yellowed trunks of pines
Were precision–cut and strewn
Up and down the way; white and yellow
Chips from chain saws flecked across
The chewed-up ground beside
Round, two-foot segments of wood
Tumbled like children’s blocks
Across the path. I had to stop
And walk my bike through.

I could not shake the image of
Bodies, sprawled and naked,
Piled in mounds inside the camps.

Robert Miller


Mondrian's tree. What about it?
I was just looking at it. And?
I was just thinking. Yes, you were.
It's very . . . treelike. It's very like a tree.
But it isn't a tree. No, it isn't.
As if from life, but once removed.
Art is life at a remove.
It's not the real article at all, is it?
It's not really real, no.
The hand copies what the eye sees.
The hand, I'd say, copies the mind.
Of course! Which copies what the eyes see.
Pretty much. Tree. Eye. Mind. Hand.
And the actual painting itself.
And there's that too.
The five stages of art.
Or the five levels, plus the viewer.
And their eyes, and their minds.
It's getting complicated, isn't it?
Surely. Then it must be difficult to be
"genuine" as far as the artist is concerned.
Perhaps "impossible" is the word;
the original subject-tree could be
thought of as genuine though.
And here I thought it was a painting of a tree!
Or very like one.

Bruce McRae


The large sentry creaks
Battered by the gale
It's branches twisting
and folding in on themselves
As if to protect the trunk
It's heart

A symphony whistles
through early evening air
As leaves dance and spur
And let the wind pass through
Their music all but drowned out by
the relentless breath of wind

I watch as ground around me
is ripped up
A cacophony
of noise and destruction
Empty plastic bags
ride the gusts
Refuse spills
And garden debris stings my eyes

I catch movement
out the corner of my eye
And note a light awaken
in neighbouring house
Without communication
I still sense
their trepidation

Their nervous watchfulness
as tree sways
towards their rooftop
Then retreats

Then repeats
Advances and retreats
Advances and retreats

The majestic oak
becomes a threat
And I catch my breath

And wait
And watch
And hope
that the wind
will die down soon

Elizabeth Frattaroli


Only a tree can teach
being a tree.

A tree points out branches
that need to be cut,

branches that need to be saved.

If she stands too close,
the tree will blind her.

If she stands too far away,
the leaves will block her view.

When she becomes the tree,
the tree reveals its true form.

Bobbie Townsend


The banyan tree
Stood strong
It was after all
The center of our town
The local hot stop
With its parapet
Resting many a tired passerby.

I went to it
When darkness fell
When the tree stood alone
Holding all stories
From that day.

Wrapping my arms
Around the huge trunk
I caressed him
Like a lover
His leaves brushing my back
The cold breeze
Weaving around us
A silent thread
A lonely widow
To an old tree.

We shared our secrets
Each night
I cried to him
My tears absorbed
By the earth below.

He drank them in
His branches around my shoulder
Leaves whispering in my ear
That all will be ok

He was gentle
And patient
And each night
He waited
For my company.

He belonged to all
During the day
But during nightfall
He belonged to me
As i belonged to him.

Divya Kamath


The heat permeates every needle
baking that Christmas time smell
into a cloying, dense cloud that I have to
wade through.
surrounded and towered over
by the scale and depth of the temperature and the life around me.
Bowing to the majesty, I duck under the lowest boughs
seeking some respite.
The density which produces the shade,
only offers a calmer, darker hot.

Eric Steggall


i am my mother's daughter, and before that, my grandmother's.
i look for places i've never been and then wish i were home.
i hold my head a certain way; with my face searching for the sun.

i am blues and greens with silver for hair, and sky.

two spiders in diagonal corners look down
and though i shiver i know they are doing good and noble work,
i know they know my name.

i wonder how i could ever capture even one slice or sliver of the beauty in front of me,
how i could press it against paper, or you
and save it for later.

three weeks ago it was a sunset,
one tree,
a live oak.
a silhouette of lace.

i cried.
no one knew i was happy.
no one was with me to care.
for a good and long time there was no where to go
and nothing i had to do.

Patty Joslyn


I loved to climb them as a child
they now offer little more
than shadows
though still well-rooted
and able to bend
with the winds
fighting poison in sky
a place to lurk
beneath remains

of various height
I liken myself
to one obscured
by the pomp of the big
a pettiness not worth
as my time here dwindles
I’m as ill as the trees
soon a fallen omission

does it matter?
it once did
but the task to survive
is a difficult navigation

I hope to pass
in the night
a tree none hear fall
without axe, saw
or further insult
to a height beyond words

Craig Stormont


When I see the Golden Chain I think
You must have finally found your feet
It no longer struggles in the sand
Has worked its way through ant-ridden layers
Is cantankerous, this tree you delivered
Ornery like you, never giving in
Suffering through
Though I remember you always said
They should cut me off
Just below the ears
Next minute you'd be laughing at the joke

I want you to know that when I moved
The tree came too, dug from the lawn
It had hadn't fared well
I took greater care the second time
Dug the hole deeper
And filled it with things I thought a tree would like
Puddled it in like you showed me
But still it twisted
And no chain of flowers appeared
Despite the promise of gold
That stirred you in the first place

It's been a full thirteen years, and more
But one day this year
I looked out at the morning
And there amongst bright leaves
Hung your abundant gift
Of golden chains

Iris Lavell


My pup has dragged me on leash
over buckled concrete, up the alley, to this.
Ailanthus, tree of heaven.
A puppy is so elastic - all bounce and lunge,
no crepitus of bone-joints.
This old tree is sore in the knees as I am.
Heavenly weed, Ailanthus
sprouts right through the pavement cracks,
waving its feather-fan leaves
so luxuriant, my pup plunges into the midst,
as if to sniff its secrets.
Tree of heaven - as green in dry summer
as now in winter plumage.
In the higher boughs, garlands of seed-
wings gather, ready
to take off on the eastwind. This tree
could tell how scabbed
bark heals, even as it cracks open
to let loose its new
wild-green shoots: life young and
elastic as a pup
from this old road-edge

Taylor Graham


Among montezuma cypress and Carolina hemlock,
I escape the lawnmowers and tour trams. Stroll past

magnolia and azalea and maple still unable
to find solace from the deathkiss of the populace.

I rest under white oak and slingshot pine along
grassy shoreline of a million-gallon reservoir

of turtle and waterbug soup. A blue-headed
dragonfly stops by to catch a buzz, the painted

turtle not too pious to join the circle.
The wind recommends we look up, and sure

enough, the wingspan of the eagle glides above
like he's considering what we are, food or fiend.

The lizard shivers. The grasshopper and dragonfly
get a room in the loblolly motel. I make for shade,

find a bumble bee hive in roots of willow spilling
through the fence to the highway.

Daniel Pravda


I didn't do it deliberately,
set out to drive by your old house to note its black
windows staring vacantly back at me, the little brown flower garden
you tended the last year you lived there. I didn't expect
to spend time looking at any of this on such a golden
Saturday in October, the sky bluer than your eyes,
but there I stood
my hands in my pockets motionless
across the street from the big maple tree in the front yard
its leaves bleeding red up against that empty blue sky,
a combination so bright it almost hurt to look.
But I did: drank it all down
like a glass of cold cranberry juice, bitter
as it was sweet,
and stayed there long enough
to watch as a small breeze flipped each leaf
halfway across itself like little discs of fire,
enough beauty to distract me
from the rest of your abandoned yard:
the dead leaves scattered on the ground below,
those few left clinging to black sticks high above,
reminding me of old men standing alone
at a bar or in the middle of an empty road
confused, refusing to go home even though they know
they have had too much to drink
because they have lost their way somehow,
have forgotten what home is supposed to feel like now,
or just knew too many women who upped
and moved away.

Tony Magistrale


looking out at you--

you skinny old Sycamore
waving your rough arms

in place like a tired warrior
with nothing but a flurry of white

between you and victory.
Nothing's going to sap

your sweet soul
just because you

have to stick it out
in this hard place. You

have the chimes of all time
locked inside.

And today, stuck here too,
looking out at you--

I can feel the echo
of your heart ring.

Shirl McPhillips


One could describe my jobs as editing,
I suppose, but not only in words.
Day after day,
Summer after summer,
Armed with a gas-powered pruner—
I was nature’s helper,
Hacking and hewing,
Reshaping this haphazard world
To get it ready for Christmas.
Had I a gas-powered red pencil
In my full-time job as a teacher,
I, probably, would have enjoyed correcting essays more.
The thrill of power and permanence.
The rush of potential hazard of snagging on symbols
For sentence fragments or run-ons,
And having it kick back
To permanently maim myself between the eyes.

But returning to my field,
The placement of the sun in the sky
Is insufficient cause for the shapes of trees.
Branches lengthening to a spot of sun,
Have to be slapped for misbehaving,
Pruned to the logarithms of tinsel, lights, and ornaments.

A perfect Jesus needs a perfect tree.
And I was good at my job.
In less than a minute,
I could transmogrify a raw tree
Into an idea of a tree.
Down long row after row of white or blue spruce
I precisely coned each tip,
Each made ready for as many angels
As have ever danced on the head of a pin,
To be persecuted for whatever
Sins they would have committed
Had they had proper genitalia.

On December weekends, I would walk out with families,
Into the snow that separated each row from the other,
Now lines on a gigantic composition paper.
The woman would say,
“I want one with a bird’s nest in it,
“Like we had last year.”
That was an accident,
Like some kid using a possessive pronoun before a gerund.

“I don’t want one like we had last year.
“All the needles fell off before Christmas.”
The man sounded like I did
Every time I assigned an essay.

“It can’t be taller than seven feet,”
The grandmother would add,
“We had to cut three feet off the one
“You sold us last Christmas.”

As if I knew how big their house was,
As if in essays about Christmas traditions,
I understood why stepfathers threw stepdaughters
Down the stairs.

“This one is perfect,”
The mother would finally say,
As the children whined about the cold.
I started the chainsaw,
Happy myself to be getting out of the cold.
“I love the smell of pine,”
Always an adult would say.
“It’s such a clean, natural smell.”
As if sticking my concept of a tree
In the front room of their house,
Was the most natural thing to do,
As natural as using sentences with both subjects and verbs.

Ron Yazinski